11:25am Thursday 19th July 2012
By Chris Koenig
‘England is like one big park.” So said a young nephew from Ireland, as we drove from Woodstock to Burford.
I saw what he meant: surely any foreign child would get that impression if their first introduction to England occurred in rural west Oxfordshire — apparently a land full of rich people, all living in big houses set in parks behind walls built of Cotswold stone.
We had left Blenheim behind — where the boy had said that the statue of the Great Duke, wearing his toga and standing on top of the Column of Victory, looked like a priest blessing his congregation. We had then turned down a narrow lane to get a glimpse of Ditchley before driving on to Charlbury; and we were just passing Lee Place on our right and Cornbury on our left, when he made the remark.
But the point is that the comment would have been as apposite almost anywhere in this very rural area. Houses open to the public to the east of Oxford include Stonor, Mapledurham, and Grey’s Court; to the west, in addition to Blenheim and Ditchley, there are the exquisite Lodge at Sherborne and, of course Buscot, both now in the care of the National Trust (to name but two). To the North are Broughton Castle and Sulgrave Manor; and to the south Milton Manor and Kingston Bagpuize House.
And the boy’s remark would not have seemed entirely inappropriate even in much of Oxford itself, what with the stunning college architecture, and the existence of such green open spaces as Christ Church Meadow or the Deer Park at Magdalen.
Extraordinary, really, that so much of the county still appears as parkland, even though many of the great houses are no longer private homes (though many are; and some that weren’t are becoming so again), and of course most of us, despite how things appeared to a 12-year-old boy from Ireland, live in 19th- or 20th-century suburbs — certainly not grand parks. All the same, Oxfordshire is so rich in architecture that it is possible to find an example from almost every period you care to seek out. That 12-year-old, for instance, was interested in the mosaic at the Roman villa at North Leigh, but was a little sniffy about Norman churches, explaining that some Round Towers he had been shown in Ireland during a school project were older. I had to match him with the pre-Conquest Saxon church of St Michael at the North Gate, Oxford’s oldest building.
But it is not only the grandest great houses and parks, redolent of old-fashioned splendour and designed by architects including Vanbrugh and Gibbs, that impress visitors. Tourists are also attracted by countless smaller manor houses, often with whole villages huddled at their gates. Sometimes — as for instance at the lovely village of Lower Slaughter — the manor has even turned into a hotel for them to stay in.
Rural life in Oxfordshire has probably changed more since the Second World War than during the preceding two or three centuries. The comforting sight of manor (complete with squire), vicarage (complete with vicar), a church, and a pub is more or less gone forever.
As few as one in five pre-war vicarages in England remains a vicarage today, and pubs continue to close at an alarming rate, with most survivors in rural Oxfordshire going ‘gourmet’.
Very few people living in pretty villages nowadays are dependent on the land for their living. But the rural idyll lives on; there is no shortage of people with no land to range over nevertheless possessing four-wheel-drive cars.
But another surprising paradox is hidden here: beneath this change there is no change. For much of Oxfordshire’s agricultural land is still owned by the families that have owned it for generations. It has been estimated that 69 per cent of Britain’s acreage is owned by 0.6 per cent of the population. In the Cotswolds, as my nephew noticed, that is very apparent.
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